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The death of a boy fractures a family in Namwali Serpell's 2nd novel 'The Furrows'

NAMWALI SERPELL: I don't want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

That's author Namwali Serpell reading from her second novel, "The Furrows: An Elegy." Those opening lines echo again and again throughout the book. The book's first narrator is Cassandra, known as Cee. When she was 12 years old, she went to the beach with her younger brother, Wayne. They went swimming, and Wayne disappeared in a storm. Wayne's absence fractures their family. But even though he's gone, Wayne appears everywhere. Cassandra's mom, Charlotte, is white and her dad's Black. And Serpell was born in Zambia, and her own family is of mixed origin.

SERPELL: I felt like, as in my first novel, "The Old Drift," I wanted to explore some of the variations on the theme of the mixed family. Moving to America, my family, which is a mixed race family, was encountering very different ways of negotiating racial dynamics within a family. And so I was interested in teasing that apart.

Charlotte creates a foundation for missing children, which is called Vigil. And at one point in the novel, Cassandra describes this as a way of paying - a way of profiting off of death or profiting off of loss. And I've been interested in the ways that, as America tries to come to terms with the great violence of its past - its racialized past, how what seems to be these large-scale movements of feeling - this sense of mourning or the sense of rage or the sense, even, of connection - is always accompanied by hucksters on either side of the racial line trying to profit off of it.

SUMMERS: As you mentioned, the accident, Wayne's loss, is retold over and over again, reimagined in the different settings you discuss. I'm curious, what were you hoping to explore about loss and grief? It felt to me when I was reading at times that Cee was forced to relive losing her brother in these different ways as the readers reintroduced to that moment.

SERPELL: The repetitions were meant to mimic the rhythm of mourning. I have the sense from those that I've lost and from talking to people who've lost others that a person that you love doesn't die just once for you. They die every time that you remember that they're dead. And that reiteration of grief, this experience of loss, doesn't get necessarily easier with time. And reinscribing the catastrophe of loss in these repetitions in the novel was an attempt for me to enact that for Cassandra, but also to make the reader undergo that same intensity of loss every time.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about Cee's relationship with her mother and the way that she grows to understand her, but also and sometimes she's protective of her, like when her college roommate criticizes her mother. I'd love to know, did you take any inspiration from your own relationship with your mother as you constructed that dynamic?

SERPELL: No, but I have to say I'm with Toni Morrison, who said, I don't really feel like I'm writing unless I'm inventing. I was more interested, I think, in trying to delineate the ways that mourning can skew the relationships between other members of the family in ways that are often not predictable to us. It felt to me very important to capture the way that grief often carries a line of rage running through it almost like a thin line of mercury or something that - a bit of poison in the midst of it. And so Cassandra and Charlotte both are really struggling with guilt. And they repress that guilt, they disavow that guilt, in all kinds of ways. They blame each other; they blame themselves. But they are constrained in how they can express that to each other. And trying to capture the way that this kind of simmering rage can underly the process of mourning, I think, was really my interest there with those two women.

SUMMERS: Well, we begin learning the story through Cee's eyes. There's a point in the book where the perspective begins to shift. Talk to us a little bit about that.

SERPELL: I was interested there in presenting a very different narrative. It's obviously a different gender and a different class position, but also a different experience of loss. He's lost his parents, not his child or his brother. And the way that he deals with the foreshortening of possibility in his life as a Black man is quite distinct from Cassandra's. I wanted to juxtapose these different ways of looking at loss in the world within the Black community, not necessarily to say that one is better than the other, but just to say that there are so many different ways of thinking about loss and also that sometimes the best that you can do is to place your loss next to someone else's and see how they resonate.

SUMMERS: When I finished this book, I feel like I came away with a sense of understanding and exploration, but not necessarily closure, I wouldn't say. What do you hope readers take away from this story when they put the book down?

SERPELL: Well, I think it goes back to the lines that I chose to begin the book with and which appears a kind of refrain from Cassandra - I don't want to tell you what happened; I want to tell you how it felt. I want the reader to come away with a feeling. And this is one of the reasons I chose to subtitle the novel "An Elegy." I wanted to capture not just the poetic rhythms that in here, in something like an elegy, the refrains, the rhymes, the meter - I also wanted to capture the way that a poem doesn't really function to give you a takeaway or a message or a moral. A poem is a way of drawing you into and through an experience. It, in many ways, is there to conjure a feeling. And the complexity of grief means that it's not just one feeling. When I say a feeling, I probably mean a dozen feelings at once. My hope is that the waves of feeling throughout the novel will build and culminate in a kind of symphony of feeling that comes somewhat close to capturing the multifaceted complexity of grief.

SUMMERS: Namwali Serpell's latest novel is "The Furrows: An Elegy." Thank you so much for being with us.

SERPELL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.